Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Eating for two

I'm not a picky eater. When I was growing up, I remember only two or three things that I refused to eat at home, including bottled "French" salad dressing and a tomato, rice, and lime concoction, a specialty of my father's that he called Key West pork chops. My parents had little cause to complain, and never suspected that the real list of foods I disliked included things most kids loved but they'd never think to buy: marshmallow fluff, jello, Twinkies, chewing gum, and breakfast cereals that turned the milk a color other than white. I was blessed with parents who knew how to cook and liked to put together inventive family dinners. I therefore learned to like real food at an early age, and was wary of anything that came wrapped in plastic or dyed some artificial color. When I think back on it, my palate was probably French from toddlerhood, if not from birth.

When I first met my husband, he would always carefully check with me before he served me anything out of the ordinary. He'd lived in the US for five years and even dated an American, and he knew that as a general rule we are not adventurous eaters. From the start, I was determined to show him that I wasn't like the others. No, bring on the stinky cheese! Salad with duck gizzard confit? Why not! Steak so rare it's ready to walk off my plate? Yes, of course! I wanted to prove my gastronomic worth.

It wasn't difficult, because I loved almost everything he found to serve me. I remember my first dinner with my in-laws-to-be. As the first girl he'd ever brought home to meet his parents, my future mother-in-law quickly understood the significance of the event and offered to make homemade foie gras. My husband and I had known each other then for a fairly short period of time, and I think he was a bit worried that this exceptional dish wouldn't be appreciated, and then what would everyone think? He checked and double-checked with me that it would really be okay. No, I told him, I'd never had foie gras, but I'd try anything. He reminded me several times not to spread the foie on the slices of toast, horrible faux pas, but just place them delicately. I felt like the whole thing was some sort of test, and I was desperate to pass.

It turned out that my mother-in-law's homemade mi cuit foie gras, gently baked in a water bath and doused with just the right amount of Cognac, is ambrosia. Luckily at my belle famille's table there's no ban on taking seconds.

There are a few French dishes I still haven't warmed up to. I am not fond of andouillette, a tripe sausage, although every time my husband orders it I dutifully take a bite to make sure I still feel the same way. Last time I was almost convinced. I'm equally skeptical of tête de veau, former president Jacques Chirac's favorite dish. All in all, though, I'm proud to say my diet is almost completely French. (Since there's no hope I'll lose my American accent, I have to be proud of my integration elsewhere.)

Gourmet and gourmand that I am, adhering to a limited diet during my pregnancy has been torture. I love French cheese and once planned to sample every kind until I learned that there are, according to Charles de Gaulle's famous quote, over 246 different varieties. Of the ones I have tried, my favorites are all unpasteurized, making them off limits for nine months. I also cannot eat rare meat, which makes duck breast and all decently cooked steaks inaccessible as well. Tuna tartare is out, as are any desserts with mousse, which may contain uncooked egg white. I was heartbroken to take a pass on my mother-in-law's foie gras this Christmas in favor of a plate of avocado and canned crab.

At home, all this has simply forced me to be more creative. I believe that chefs can do their best work under culinary constraints, and working with a limited number of ingredients forces one to be creative. That and sheer laziness is why I send my husband to the market to pick up whatever he finds that looks good and is in season, leaving me to improvise with whatever he brings home. And after shunning the fromager for the first few months, we finally asked his advice on pasteurized cheeses. He seemed offended: but of course there are plenty of delicious ones, he explained, we just had to ask!

I am, of course, happy to make these sacrifices for the health of my baby. It's all worth it, and I look forward to a time a year or so from now when I can start slowly introducing him to all the wonderful things there are to eat in this world. Who knows, maybe Petit will take to it and end up a chef with Michelin star.

One night at a restaurant during our trip to the Gers a few weekends ago I found it all a bit difficult, however. We were at a restaurant we'd remembered fondly from our first trip, and we'd been looking forward for weeks to eating there again. Things started uncomfortably when we were unexpectedly the only ones there on the first night of a four-day weekend. I'm always ill at ease when alone in a restaurant, and I was happy that the owner quickly disappeared to another room after showing us to our table.

I quickly scanned the menu, looking for items I'd have to avoid. The homemade salt-cured ham, which I knew delicious from our last visit, was out. Ditto the marinated salmon. The foie gras, mi cuit as expected, was also eliminated. There went the only three options on the fixed-price menu, and I was going to have to go à la carte. This was going clearly going to be as expensive as frustrating.

The à la carte list was better for appetizers, but none of the entrées were acceptable. The pièce de boeuf and the duck breast would both likely be cooked rare, and I hadn't the heart to ask for either well-done: at the price listed, it would be an expensive massacre, and I wasn't willing to do it. I finally decided that my only option was to ask for a switch, substituting one of the menu appetizers with one the "safe" appetizers from the à la carte list. I chose the peppers stuffed with duck confit, and my husband offered to open the negotiations.

The owner came back to take our order. My husband started to explain things.

"My wife is pregnant," he said, and the owner nodded wearily at the obvious. "And, you see, she's technically not supposed to eat anything that hasn't been fully cooked. So, we were wondering if it were possible to take the menu, but substitute something for the appetizer..."

"I see," she said dubiously, "What did you have in mind?"

I chimed in. "I'd like the stuffed peppers, and then the chicken with morel mushrooms." I had a suspicion it wouldn't be quite that easy.

"But madame, that would be two poultry dishes in a row, which wouldn't do." I looked at my husband, suddenly confused.

"Besides," she continued, "I don't understand. The ham is cooked in salt, and the salmon is marinated, they're both perfectly fine." She seemed offended that we would question the safety of her food, and I wanted to disappear into a hole in the floor. I was suddenly stuck in the role of the Difficult American.

While my husband and the owner negotiated in a flurry of French I didn't bother to follow, I studied the menu again. It now resembled a mine field. "What about the creamed artichoke hearts? Might that be substituted?" I tried.

The owner insisted on checking with the chef, and I was left looking sheepishly at my husband. "What else was I supposed to do?"

She soon returned and gruffly agreed to the substitution. I started to apologize, insisting that I wasn't used to being difficult. She seemed unmoved. I appreciated the meal, but I couldn't get rid of a feeling of embarrassment.

Finally, the dessert arrived. My meal came with a baba drenched in Armagnac; my husband's with a chocolate soufflé. We had planned to discreetly exchange them once the owner had left the room, but to our surprise, she offered to switch when she brought them to the table. I must have looked grateful, for she even managed a smile.

That's eating for two. At least I'm encouraged to think that Petit will grow up French, predisposed to appreciate andouillette and avoid twinkies and jello. I guess that's all a mother could hope for.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Visites à domicile

If you read my previous post, know that this morning I made the decision for myself and for the baby to try and keep all the events in Seattle as far from my mind as possible.

Life goes on, I'm still at home resting, and what better to keep my mind on positive subjects than blogging? It at least satisfies my need to find someone to talk to, albeit through a rather one-sided conversation.

I've become more and more familiar with the French medical system over the last few months. Despite complaining about the over-medicalization of pregnancy and birth (and I believe most western countries, with the possible exception of the Netherlands, are guilty of this), I'll have to say that the experience has been wonderful.

If I need to see my gynecologist, I can call his office and often get an appointment the same day. If he's not available, I can call his cell phone and he's happy to give me advice, even talk to a pharmacist directly if need be. Since I've been followed by a different gynecologist associated with the hospital, things are a little less straightforward -- she is, unfortunately, only available once a week -- but I can hardly complain.

Best of all, it's all practically free. My private health insurance covers everything the state health insurance doesn't, and that's usually no more than the co-pay I'd be responsible for even if fully insured back in the States.

When I was put on pre-maternity leave last week after my monthly visit to the hospital, my doctor arranged to have a midwife visit me at home. I knew that in France doctors still made house calls, and had even benefited from the service when a particularly unpleasant stomach flu had me doubled-over in bed the day after Christmas back in 2003. It was just like in old American movies: the doctor arrived in the middle of the night and was greeted by my concerned family, then was quietly shown in to see me. He sat on the edge of my bed with his big black bag on his knees. He asked me a few questions and left my husband with a laundry list of medications to pick up at the pharmacie de garde.

This morning the midwife arrived in much the same way, with a calm, reassuring tone and her own big black bag. I was a bit worried despite my earlier bravado, and in the days since I'd been given orders to stay at home and rest had been growing anxious. After all, I reasoned, I wouldn't have been instructed to stay in bed as much as possible without a valid reason. The midwife confirmed what the doctor had told me, the baby is positioned in such a way that there is an increased risk that I go into labor early, but if I take it easy for the next three weeks everything should be fine.

I paid just under 50€ for the visit, about ten euros more than I would have were it not Pentecost Monday, still officially a holiday for the Sécurité Sociale. It will be fully reimbursed by my private insurance. In the US, I'm not sure such a visit would have been possible. It likely would have been prohibitively expensive, and certainly would not have been proposed and coordinated by the hospital.

I asked the midwife about birth preparation courses, since the ones run by the hospital seemed a bit less thorough than I'd like. She understood me right away.

"Are you planning to have an epidural?" she asked, and when I said that no, I wanted to try and avoid one and use breathing and relaxation techniques as much as possible, she told me she knew just what I needed. She gave me the name of another local midwife who specializes in natural birthing techniques, and I quickly called to sign up for three classes.

This is what health care is about. Yes, the French system has its problems, and is running a deficit like everywhere else in the world, but something fundamental about serving patients is understood and built into the system. We need to fight to keep it that way, and if that means adding a real co-pay more substantial than the symbolic one euro added last year, I am more than happy to pay.

After all, I want a midwife available to visit at home should petit need one when it's time to bring the next generation into the world, thirty or so years in the future. And in the meantime, I will be more than comforted to know that there are pediatricians who make house calls.

The call

I think everyone who lives far from home dreads it. The call comes at some strange hour early in the morning or late at night, and you're suddenly perfectly alert as you jump out of bed and run for the phone. You already know the only person it could be. Suddenly there's no need to calculate just what time it is all those time zones away, since it no longer matters. You know something is dreadfully wrong.

This morning, at 7:30 Paris time, I got the call. "Is everything okay?" I asked, knowing already what the answer would be. "No..." And all you can do is collapse in tears because you know that thousands of miles away, you're utterly powerless to do anything else.

At least with the rationalization of modern life, of hospitals and cell phones, you know that you not only can't, but you don't need to do anything. Right now, I know that experts are taking care of those people I care about, and honestly, my being there in Seattle right now would not change anything. The urgency is gone now, anyway; things are stable, and for the moment there's no need to worry.

All I can do is go through my day in Paris, knowing that in Seattle the people I care about should be long asleep. I hope that if they can't sleep, they remember that I, in my life far away, am somehow keeping vigil. My prayers and thoughts will be with them through the night.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Gascogne

My French dream was ill-defined when I moved to Paris three and a half years ago. Sure, part of me imagined a sunny, Haussmanian apartment with French doors and a wrought-iron balcony, a composite image I think I constructed from lingerie and perfume commercials back in the States. I also had a vague picture of a cramped, book-lined apartment under a zinc roof somewhere on the Left Bank. Wherever I lived, there'd be a boulangerie downstairs. Beyond all that, I could picture nothing precise.

I moved to Paris not for any of that, and as it turned out, we ended up in a modern apartment in a tidy, nondescript neighborhood in a convenient suburb. I'm grateful for our 60+ square meters, our two bedrooms, our parking garage and, especially recently, our two elevators. Our living room may feel cramped and is certainly book-lined, but no zinc is visible from our window and the only glimpse we get of the Eiffel Tower is of the searchlight when it sweeps out from behind the ugly apartment building across the street.

I didn't move to Paris because I fell in love with the city. I moved to Paris because I fell in love with my husband and through him a country and a culture. I wanted our children to grow up feeling as French as American, and I wanted to become French in a way myself. I often read expatriate stories of falling in love with Paris or with some corner of the French countryside, and was amused, perhaps felt a bit superior. I felt like I was the one who was truly living and not just dreaming, and I had no need to fall in love with some neighborhood or village. I was too pragmatic for that.

Then my husband brought me to the Gers, and the love affair began.

The Gers is a department in the southwest of France, part of the historical region of Gascogne. It is near Toulouse, an hour or two from both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and on a clear day, you can see the Pyrenees from the top of any of the region's higher hills. It belongs to none of these places, however, and you feel almost as if it were stolen from much farther away. Tuscany comes to mind, and there's plenty of red-earth fields, sunflowers and grape vines to hold this illusion, but the hills are greener, the landscape less Mediterranean. Its stone farmhouses and manors almost look as if they belong in southern Normandy, but their facades are too warm for northern France. Toulouse is only an hour away but everything is built in stone, not brick, and the rolling hills have nothing in common with the flat valley of the Garonne. You end up concluding that it is entirely unique, a place that combines the best elements of other places you've been and rearranges them to make paradise.

You come quickly to the conclusion that you are, in fact, in the land of milk and honey. Or wine and foie gras, more accurately. It is no exaggeration to claim that at the crest of every hill there is a castle or a fortified village, a perfect medieval postcard unmarred by any signs of modern life. The region was blessed, in a way, to have been for centuries a crossroads, strategically important to the Romans, and later the object of endless wars between the English and the French. It was then fortunate enough to have been forgotten in modern times. There are no major cities and only one town of any importance, no industry, almost no modern construction, no housing developments. You suspect it was all forgotten sometime early in the last century, and the inhabitants all left to tend to their geese and their Armagnac vines in peace.

Of course, it was discovered recently by the British, as most of the beautiful, little-known places in France eventually are. There's hardly a reason to complain, other than the inflated real estate prices: all those pounds sterling seem to have been so tastefully invested in lovingly restored farmhouses and châteaux, it only adds to the beauty of the place. And why shouldn't they feel at home in the land of Eleanor of Aquitaine? There are still enough genuine locals to make town marketplaces resound with a particular Gascon accent, with deepened "Rs" and distinct syllables and a rhythm that seems borrowed from Spanish.

I was probably pre-programmed to fall in love with the Gers. It was a conspiracy by my husband, who grew up in Toulouse and declares everything in the southwest France truer and healthier than anywhere else on the planet. He is proud to call himself a Gascon by birth, since the Toulouse hospital where he was born is actually on the opposite bank of the Garonne from the city and thus at the limit of the historic region. He certainly fits the stereotype of a true Gascon: open and warm, boastful and prone to good-natured exaggeration, stubborn as a mule. His DNA may be from Champagne and Charente, but nurture won that particular battle.

My first trip to the Gers was a surprise weekend to celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary in August of last year. My husband booked plane tickets, dinner at a three-star restaurant in Eugenie les Bains, and planned a true dream weekend, all without me knowing more than the hour we were expected to be at Orly airport. We spend three days driving around in our rented Peugeot 307 convertible eating unreasonable amounts of heavenly food at both lunch and dinner, and spending the rest of our time visiting abbeys and castles. How could I avoid falling in love with the place?

I was almost afraid of being disappointed when we went back for our second visit last week. It wasn't that I doubted the magic of the Gers, but how could we possibly recreate what was so perfect last time? On top of it, I was seven months' pregnant, so Armagnac, homemade foie gras, as well as the region's très sympatique red Madiran wine were all off the menu, so the gastronomic experience would be a bit less rich for me this time around. Not that I was about to complain, I was just ready to be a little less enchanted.

Not so. From the minute we arrived at our bed and breakfast, a stone manor house beautifully restored by an English couple, I was back under the spell. My husband took a bit more time (and a bit of Madiran) to recover from the nine-hour drive from Paris, but he soon started relaxing and picking up slight hints of his Toulousan accent.

We had four wonderful meals, two of which I'm ready to declare exceptional. We visited a château called "the Versailles of the Gers" where they make an Armagnac which my husband assured me was well worth the journey. A bottle came back with us, and eventually I'll be able to find out for myself. We visited an English garden, Romanesque churches and a bridge on the Way of Saint James, and two walled villages so calm and peaceful that you had trouble imagining what purpose the ramparts could ever have served. We spent an entire morning trekking through grapevines and hedgerows, counting birds and wildflowers.

I'll detail the interesting bits in the next few posts. Suffice it to say that when we reluctantly started back for Paris on Sunday afternoon, I started thumbing through real estate listings I'd picked up. I've found my French dream, and it's a stone farmhouse somewhere between Lectoure and Auch. It may not be mine now, but I've decided, it's waiting for me.

Nesting

It's a beautiful day outside, and I can just see a strip of cloudless blue sky above the ugly, ten-story apartment building that's the familiar view out my living room window. The blue is tinged slightly yellow -- this is Paris, after all -- and it's a bit too hot outside for my taste, but otherwise a perfect day. I'm not even sure I want to be outside, however. Today I'm happy curled up on the couch nesting.

When I got my arrêt de travail I consoled myself with "well, at least I'll be able to get the house really neat and tidy since I'll have nothing better to do." Now that I'm actually home, however, I've decided that if I'm stuck here, it really is to stay on my back as much as possible and not to run around with a dust rag and a vaccuum cleaner. Meanwhile, the living room, my new base of operations, has been overtaken with CDs, DVDs, and knitting and sewing projects, and the cable modem now decorates the coffee table. I still aim to organize the mess once a day and keep the kitchen clean, but I'm not going to get much more ambitious than that.

I watched Hôtel du Nord this afternoon, which my husband assured me was a chef d'oeuvre of French cinema. I enjoyed it enough, but I'll still have to take his word for it, since at least half of the dialog in pre-war Parisian slang was completely beyond me. Alas, the copy we have has no subtitles!

Despite appropriating just about every pillow in the house, I can't manage to get too comfortable on the couch. No one told me that the most difficult part of pregancy would be sitting down. If I don't have an uncomfortable pressure on the right side of my ribcage I have a horrible ache in the small of my back, despite all the squirming and adjusting I try. Sometimes for a short moment when I'm either lying down or walking around the house I'll actually forget I'm pregnant -- earlier today, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and thought, "oh, yeah, that's right, I have a belly," -- but when I'm sitting down, not a chance.

I'm more or less comfortably leaning back now, the computer on my lap and the cordless mouse on the cushion next to me. Time to write about something serious, no?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Grounded

My last two weeks at work were cut short by yesterday's visit to the doctor. Apparently the slightly larger-than-expected baby is pressing a little too much on my cervix, and to help ensure I go to term, my doctor has ordered bedrest and an arrêt de travail.

I feel great, so I'll admit I'm a little bit unhappy to suddenly be stuck at home on the couch for most of the day when I'd planned to be out walking around Paris until le jour J. I hope this is really necessary, and not just an overly-cautious French medical establishment a little too anxious to declare a pregnancy pathologique in order to give out an extra two weeks of pre-maternity leave. That said, my gynecologist is a very serious Englishwoman (should I be so culturally biased?), and I'm of course ready to prudently follow her advice. I don't want petit to show up early!

Naturally, the day I take leave unexpectedly everything blows up at work. I had to field a few phone calls from colleagues and the boss who are sympathetic but I'm afraid slightly irritated and inconvenienced. I feel bad, because I didn't mean to leave a minefield of unfinished code behind, honest! On the other hand, the sooner they learn to deal with it all without me, the better, I suppose.

I just don't want them all cursing me or burning me in effigy when they have to fix my bugs or worse, realizing just how dispensible I really am.

I took advantage of my first full day at home to watch one of my favorite French films: Un air de famille. That's one DVD that has earned its purchase price.

Tomorrow I'm planning to drag the computer into the living room, prop myself up on the couch, and log in for a blogging marathon. As long as I'm stuck in bed, I might as well make the most of it.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Le petit

Today was my third-trimester ultrasound exam, at five o'clock in the afternoon at the hospital where I'm due to give birth in approximately two months' time.

Two months. Two months! Eek.

The hospital is conveniently located three minutes from our apartment, and a slightly less convenient hour and fifteen from my office. I serenely slipped out the door at quarter to four, having grown somewhat more zen about skipping work for baby-related reasons as my tummy has grown bigger.

I met my husband at the Métro station closest to the hospital and we showed up at the radiology department five minutes early. Uselessly, as it turned out, as we ended up waiting until quarter to six. After fifteen minutes they ushered us into a dimly-lit room with a row of small windows high in the ceiling, peeling wallpaper, and a mountain of ultrasound equipment. My shirt pulled up and my pants unbuttoned, I tried to make myself as comfortable as possible on the examination table. We held hands and waited.

"Le petit" seemed anxious for his fifteen minutes of fame, and kept giving me short series of kicks in my ribs. Perhaps it was simply to reassure us, for although I was less worried than before previous ultrasounds, I was still anxious. Would the baby be positioned properly? Had he gained enough weight? Too much? What weren't we worried about but should be? My husband wasn't far from a nervous wreck.

The midwife who performed the ultrasound wasn't particularly talkative, but we soon learned that everything was just fine. The baby's head is at the bottom, the rear below the right of my ribcage, and a couple of tiny feet are tucked up somewhere to the left, under my heart. Measurements were taken, the heartbeat recorded, and we even got a couple of snapshots of a tiny head in profile to take home. We were both relieved.

Back at home my husband said to me, amazed, "It's a real little baby now." Somehow as my stomach expands it all seems more real, as this tiny being becomes less a part of me and more a small individual, ready to greet the world. The ultrasound exams throw the gradual changes into sudden focus. We start wondering what he will be like, and enumerate all the superficial attributes we can sense. The hair was difficult to see, according to the midwife, so perhaps the baby will be bald at birth like his mother. He's constantly moving, so clearly he'll be an exercise nut, something his father is ready to attribute to me as well. Most impressively, they were already able to predict the baby's birth weight: already at 2.5 kilos, they expect 3.6 or 3.7 at birth. A "beau bébé!" Perhaps I should stop calling him "le petit" soon...

Does all this matter? I think we cling to the few details we can glean from the ultrasound because pregnancy and birth is fundamentally a mystery. We can know everything from the length of the tiny legs to the movement of the heart, but there will still be everything to learn at birth.

Two months. Two months! Will we be ready?

I just got another coup de pied, which I'm taking as a sign to take myself -- err, the two of us -- off to bed.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Main Street, France

Yesterday I took a trip over an ocean and a continent and suddenly found myself, or so I thought, in the Northgate Mall in a Seattle suburb. Nothing had changed since I'd last been there ten years ago: the same food court, the same potted plants, the same background music. Or close enough for my addled brain not to distinguish the difference, at any rate. For a moment, I could forget I was only a twenty minute drive from the Eiffel Tower, and ten minutes from the château of Versailles.

Welcome to Parly 2, a little piece of Americana stranded outside Paris and suburbia at its best or worst, depending on your point of view.

Start with the mall: it looks exactly like any mall in the United States built in the 1970s, with four or five anchor department stores in giant gray, windowless boxes connected by a two-level corridor lined with small chain stores. There's a food court with plenty of tables scattered on an indoor patio. There are handcarts with informal boutiques selling anything and everything you might impulse buy, from costume jewelry to personalized picture frames. There's a play area for small children. It's enough to induce a sort of geographic vertigo, and for a moment I felt I could actually forget where I was. It's a familiarity utterly unassociated with any specific, real place.

I, of all people, shouldn't be fazed by this, right? I mean, France is a civilized country, surely they must have shopping malls as one of the necessary trappings of modern life? Actually, Parly 2 is somewhat of an exception. There are other shopping malls, of course, although the idea of doing one's shopping while strolling down a synthetic, indoor main street doesn't seem to have caught on as much here as back in the US. However, the other malls I know have all failed to recreate that particularly American sense of nowhereness. You could never mistake the Forum des Halls, a poorly-aging and somewhat sordid mall in the center of Paris, for someplace in Iowa. Ditto for the Quatre Temps at La Défense: the illusion just doesn't work, and you can't forget that if you step outside you'll be in the middle of Paris' financial district. Only Parly 2 feels like the real thing.

Parly 2 is only half shopping mall, with the other half an urban planning experiment. This is where the American ideal became something quintessentially French. All around the mall is a giant park of condominiums built in the late 1960s as the new middle-class residential paradise. The buildings are small and reasonably attractive given their age, and none are more than a few stories high. They're scattered about a nicely landscaped park that manages to disguise their uniformity.

They represent the best of what was mostly an unfortunate epoch in French residential construction. All through the 60s and 70s, ugly, cookie-cutter apartment buildings sprang up along the periphery of French cities. The ugliest are often housing projects or HLMs, and the worst of them are usually long, ten- to fifteen-story rectangular blocks of concrete. In what seems to have been a half-hearted attempt at originality, they're sometimes painted in bright, 1970s colors, and the paint is now peeling and in disrepair.

I have trouble believing that all this once seemed like a good idea. I can't picture the France of the 1950s, but I've been told that much of the available urban housing was decrepit and unsanitary. The fanciest Parisian apartments had only rudimentary comforts, and toilets were usually one-or-fewer per floor and shared among neighbors. Even the worst apartments were in short supply, and immigrants to cities from rural areas and former colonies needing somewhere to live increasingly gathered in shanty towns.

Next to this, the HLM was progress and Parly 2 a veritable paradise. A colleague of mine who recently retired has lived in Parly 2 since her children were small, and she loves it. When I told her we dreamt of a quaint, Haussmanian apartment, she declared that she wouldn't trade her modern condominium for anything. "I know what it's like to live in l'ancien," she told me. "Hot in the summer, cold in the winter, the endless flights of stairs, the shared toilet sur le palier. I've lived that already, and there's nothing charming about it." My mother-in-law, a member of the same generation, feels exactly the same way.

I guess I feel the same way about Parly 2 but in the other direction: the suburban dream, the one-size-fits-all way of life, I've been there and I've done that. If I'd wanted that for good, I would have stayed in the US where I'd have a fancier mall and an enormous house instead of a condo.

All that said, what was I doing at Parly 2 on Thursday night, you ask, if it clearly wasn't a bout of nostalgia? Well, it is great one-stop shopping, and conveniently open until 9 o'clock on weeknights, and I was on a quest for maternity clothes. I may be an expat snob, but I can be pragmatic when I need to be.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Election night

Ca y est, we have a new president: Nicolas Sarkozy won with 53% of the vote. The French language apparently has no term for "president-elect," so the press are tripping all over themselves calling him the candidate or the new president by turns. He won't actually take over from Jacques Chirac until May 16th, but the circus has already begun: the mainstream media has given themselves permission to play paparazzi for the evening, and from the moment the results were announced have been chasing Sarkozy all over Paris.

We've been watching it all unfold live on TF1, one of the major French networks. I've been enjoying a sort of amused detachment I'm not accustomed to. In recent American presidential elections, I've been pacing my living room in front of my television with a sinking feeling in my stomach, then tossing and turning all night only to wake up to exactly the results I didn't want to hear on the radio.

Given the choice we had here in France, I just couldn't bring myself to feel strongly one way or the other. Listening to the televised debate last Wednesday just confirmed to me that both candidates, including my favorite, have as many defects as qualities. Would either live up to the huge expectations the French are placing on them? In a country where inertia and tradition are the norm and change only an unusual though often dramatic exception, discontent has built up to a point where things may finally be able to move forward. My biggest question while placing my vote was who could seize this moment: left or right, provided the ideas were mainstream enough, I was willing to take a chance. Now I'll just have to wait and see.

In the meantime, I'll enjoy the spectacle. Sarkozy just finished addressing the crowd at Place de la Concorde, and is now standing onstage among a throng of admirers drawn in equal parts from the Gaullist political elite and the who's-who of French pop culture icons. Johnny Hallyday is even there, back from his tax-sheltered exile in Switzerland.

It's all most American than back home. Even Reagan wasn't this Hollywood, and I can't help but feel that were it my country of birth rather than my country of adoption, I would be offended. If American election night ended in a rock party in front of the Washington Monument, it would disgust me. Yes, we have ballons and pop bands, but at least it's kept more or less removed from the actual seat of power. Here the show is mere meters from the Elysées, the French equivalent of the White House.

The whole thing passes regularly from foreground to background as TF1's round table of commentators chime in. Every channel has its assembly of left- and right-wing figureheads who've showed up for the occasion to spar with one another. They're as familiar to the French as journalists or football players, or perhaps more appropriately, the cast of characters in a favorite nationwide soap opera. They've known each other for years and know exactly the script they need to repeat, but despite the comraderie, you can see the strain and discord within the Socialist party. It will be interesting to see if in the next weeks or months they come apart at the seams.

Since this is France, there is everywhere an element of joyous disorganization, of emotions and opinions trumping appearances and formality. The motorcycles chasing Sarkozy's motorcade are a perfect example: each network has a bike with a driver in front, a cameraman standing in back, and they merrily careen through the streets with little respect for traffic rules, journalistic propriety and apparently their own lives in a mad dash to follow the president-elect in his victory tour of the Right Bank.

And where did he end up? At Fouquets, a famous Parisian restaurant, for a victory dinner with some celebrity friends. How else does one celebrate anything in this country but with a good meal and a bottle of Champagne?

In the US, we may pretend that democracy is some universal value that can be applied uniformly all over the world. This may be true, but I see now that democracy has as many faces as countries that practice it. France and the US are sister democracies, born at nearly the same time from the same Enlightenment thought, and yet the shared DNA has given radically different expressions.

Now it's late enough that the political figures have headed home and left the stage to the French print journalists, the European deputies, and foreign correspondants. The second-string commentators, without star power, since by now most of France has gone to bed. I'll stay up for a while, since I think it's now that things get interesting.